Restoring Art

By Alina Suchanski

Reading time: 13 minutes

Polish art conservators Ludmiła and Edward Sakowski were told they’d never find a job in their profession in New Zealand because the country was so young; there was no art there to restore. What they found when they moved to Aotearoa not only surprised them but also proved those nay-sayers wrong.

When in 1982 Edward and Ludmiła (Ludka) Sakowski applied to come to New Zealand as refugees, they took a gamble on ever being able to work in their profession. Even during an interview at the New Zealand Embassy in Vienna, they were told that art in New Zealand was not as popular as in Europe, and there were very few jobs in art conservation.

Driven by desperation or youthful optimism, they were still prepared to risk throwing away their tertiary education and start anew.

 

By Alina Suchanski

Reading time: 13 minutes

Polish art conservators Ludmiła and Edward Sakowski were told they’d never find a job in their profession in New Zealand because the country was so young; there was no art there to restore. What they found when they moved to Aotearoa not only surprised them but also proved those nay-sayers wrong.

When in 1982 Edward and Ludmiła (Ludka) Sakowski applied to come to New Zealand as refugees, they took a gamble on ever being able to work in their profession. Even during an interview at the New Zealand Embassy in Vienna, they were told that art in New Zealand was not as popular as in Europe, and there were very few jobs in art conservation.

Driven by desperation or youthful optimism, they were still prepared to risk throwing away their tertiary education and start anew.

Edward and Ludmiła met in the 1970s at the Lyceum of Fine Arts in Wrocław, their home city in western Poland. Edward completed a Master of Art History majoring in Cultural Property Conservation. After graduating, he started work at the Office of the Chief Conservator of Wrocław City and Ludmiła got a job at the Workshop of Art Conservation. The couple married and had a daughter Magdalena (Magda).

The late ‘70s were tough times in Poland. The country was in turmoil, getting ready to overthrow the communist regime despised by all. Protests, demonstrations, and workers’ strikes had led to the country’s economic downturn and the establishment of the Solidarity Trade Union at Gdansk Shipyard. In addition, there was no freedom in the country. Ordinary citizens lived in fear of the Soviets stepping in with their tanks and guns to squash any rebellion, as they had done many times in the past. Thousands left Poland, never to return.

On 31 August 1981, the Sakowskis too boarded a plane at the Warsaw airport and left Poland forever to go to Vienna. “We had nothing. We departed with three bags, and Magda (nearly 3 at the time) had a small suitcase with her toys. Before we left Poland, her grandma gave her a small umbrella, which was too long to fit in her suitcase, and she sobbed when I wouldn’t let her take it,” Ludmiła recalls.

When they landed, they went to the police who took them to the refugee camp in Traiskirchen, a suburb of Vienna. They only stayed at Traiskirchen for a few hours before being transported to Münichreith – about 100 kms from Vienna – where they waited five months for an interview with the Australian embassy.

Edward says that they were among 200 people interviewed and “the Australians only rejected us and one other couple. When they heard what our qualifications were, they declined our application.

“Then we heard that New Zealand was taking another 100 Poles. But with 200,000 Polish refugees waiting to be accepted by some country, why would they take us?” they wondered.

Nevertheless, Edward wrote a letter to the New Zealand Embassy, and a month later, they were invited for an interview. They didn’t admit to working in art conservation for fear of being rejected again.

Ludmiła, Magda and Edward Sakowski soon after their arrival in New Zealand in 1983

Later, a letter arrived saying they were accepted, and that their departure was on 17 March 1983.

“We didn’t know anything about New Zealand. At that time nobody did. Those were pre-internet days when information wasn’t so readily available. All we knew about New Zealand was Ivan Mauger, famous in Poland for being a world champion speedway motorcyclist who won his 3rd world championship in Wrocław, Poland in September 1970; Edmund Hillary for climbing Mt Everest; and the Kiwi shoe polish sold in our supermarkets,” says Edward.

The couple were sponsored into the country by St Clair Presbyterian Church in Dunedin.

“Lovely and compassionate people. To this day, we treat them as our New Zealand family. They were so generous and thoughtful. Knowing we were Catholic, they found us a flat near Dunedin’s Catholic church,” Ludmiła recounts.

It was a small, 2-bedroom flat, but it had everything – furniture, bedding, pots and pans, crockery, a fridge full of food, even homemade preserves. To Ludmiła and Edward, it felt like home. One of the sponsors took Magda to her room, where some toys were waiting for her.

She ran out with a child-sized umbrella calling – “Mum, look, my umbrella!”

Ludmiła started to cry and said to the startled sponsors: “We are home.”

“They found me work painting houses because they saw in our papers that I was an interior decorator,” Edward remembers. He worked as a house painter for two years.

As luck would have it, in 1983, Prudence Miller, a New Zealander with an art conservation degree, opened a private studio for conservators in Dunedin’s city centre called Art Care and Conservation. One of their sponsors took the Sakowskis to her studio, and she offered Edward a part-time job. He also got employment at the Arthur Barnett store as a window dresser. Every day, when he finished at Arthur Barnett’s, he’d go to Prudence’s studio for two hours of art restoration.

Life was busy, but it became even more so when their son Aleksander was born in 1987.

“After one year, Prudence offered me more hours, but I wanted to carry on at Arthur Barnett, so I suggested that Ludka could do some conservation work. Later, as her business started to grow, Prudence offered me a full-time job. So, we both worked there,” Edward says.

“We were totally surprised with the amount of art present in Dunedin. As it turned out, New Zealand, and the South Island in particular, has some of the most interesting, abundant, and richest collections of British art in the Southern Hemisphere. There are impressive private art collections in Otago and Southland that nobody would’ve thought existed in this country,” Ludmiła stresses. “Dunedin in the 19th century was a centre of culture and art in New Zealand. The Dunedin Public Art Gallery owes its collection to affluent British and Scottish early settlers; the Hallenstein Family; Charles Brasch (a guru of New Zealand literature and an avid collector of art), and many others who laid the foundations for literature and art that continues to this day.”

Ludmiła and Edward were lucky to work with some of these gems, and through this work learned a lot about New Zealand history.

“I was restoring early maps of New Zealand drawn by Captain Cook’s surveyors. When you can lay your hands on treasures that date back to the European beginnings of this country, it reminds you how young this country is,” Ludmiła reflects.

In 1990, the Sakowskis took over Dunedin’s Art Care & Conservation.

They were surprised how many New Zealanders undervalued art: “People were often throwing out works of art thinking it was rubbish. One person brought in beautiful 18th-century picture frames, saying she saved them from a skip bin. Beautiful oil paintings, antique clocks – people were throwing out things like that. Old historic buildings were demolished to make space for car parks. Art awareness was very low,” Ludmiła laments.

“There was no understanding that heritage has value. It’s your identity. New Zealand was rich in heritage but poor in its acknowledgement,” Edward adds. “Now that’s changed. People started to watch the Antiques Road Show and suddenly realised that this old painting inherited from grandma – which has been gathering dust in the garage – may have some value.”

One woman brought in a beautiful 19th-century ornamental Victorian gilt frame for repair. Asked what used to be in the frame, she said her husband put a mirror in it. Originally, there had been a painting in the frame, but they didn’t like it. When Edward asked if she still had it, she brought the painting in. It was LW Wilson, which in 1990 was worth $20,000.

In 2003, Edward was appointed as a painting conservator at the newly opened Christchurch Art Gallery. This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, the kind that was unheard of in New Zealand. “It was very different from running my own business. I could focus purely on art conservation. It was a luxury,” Edward says.

The most memorable job for Edward was restoring a painting by Petrus Van der Velden, which the Christchurch Art Gallery bought at an auction in London. Van der Velden was a Dutch artist who emigrated to New Zealand in 1890, aged 53, with his wife and children. The painting was one of his famous, dramatic Otira Gorge series.

“When it arrived, we unwrapped it, and it turned out that part of the paint had fallen off and broken into tiny pieces. Repairing it was a big challenge, which took me nearly two years. The result was amazing, and I held a public lecture to explain how I restored the painting to its former glory,” Edward says.

Sadly, the 2011 Canterbury earthquake put an end to this job. After the earthquake, the gallery closed its art conservation department and made all conservators redundant.

While Edward was working in Christchurch, Ludmiła was running their Dunedin art conservation business alone.

Her most unforgettable professional experience happened in 1990, when a Southland farming couple brought in two watercolour paintings of Stewart Island that were badly damaged by borer and silverfish. In the corner of each painting, there was a date: 1886 and a signature: C. Aubrey – a highly valued artist of the era. Familiar with the work of this artist, Ludmiła, a specialist in the conservation of paper-based ephemeralia such as documents, watercolours, and maps, immediately recognised the significance of the two pictures.

The customer said her husband wanted to throw both of them out, to which Ludmiła suggested: “Go, get it valued.” The couple soon returned with the news that each painting was valued at $1,500 before restoration and an estimated $15,000 once restored.

Although now retired, both Edward and Ludmiła continue to take on art conservation projects, working from a studio in their Kaiapoi home north of Christchurch. “As long as my hands are steady, I’ll continue,” Edward declares. “Sometimes it’s hard to say ‘no’. I often get paintings that have no value whatsoever, but for some people it’s a treasure they want to preserve because it’s a family heirloom. Things have changed in New Zealand. People now value and appreciate art,” he says.

And his wife adds: “Yes, the cultural awareness has grown hugely in New Zealand in the last 30-40 years. We are all caretakers of our heritage, and we should do everything to ensure that our past also has a future.”

To immerse yourself in more articles like this, Subscribe or Log in